“What does it mean to be a provocateur?” Luca Guadagnino asked over Zoom. “We should talk about that for a moment.”
We were discussing Sarah, a supporting character played by Chloë Sevigny in his new HBO series “We Are Who We Are,” but we were also, in a roundabout way, talking about Guadagnino himself. Sarah is a character full of contradictions: As the incoming commander of a U.S. Army base in Italy, she’s tasked with keeping order, but as a mother, Sarah is mischievous and even transgressive, often goading her 14-year-old son Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) to act out.
Sarah isn’t like most mothers but she is, I noted, like most film directors, who must be taskmasters and provocateurs in equal measure. Could Guadagnino relate?
He could, but first he wanted to make sure we were on the same page: The word “provocateur” was not a pejorative to him, but instead, a higher calling.
“I think that being a provocateur, in the good sense, means to challenge the status quo — and the status quo changes all the time,” Guadagnino said. “You need to challenge it, if you are a truthful artist and creator.”
In that sense, he could relate to Sarah, but also to the bleached-blond, irreverent Fraser, who is more interested in fashion than fatigues and whose arrival at the base causes a sensation among its teenage set. The 49-year-old Guadagnino is beguiled by outsiders who provoke almost without meaning to, like Oliver (Armie Hammer) in his film “Call Me By Your Name” (2017), who upends a family’s languid summer idyll with his sex appeal, or Susie (Dakota Johnson), the new dancer in his remake of “Suspiria” (2018), whose talent makes more than a few heads explode at her academy.
These characters’ very presence send ripples through the status quo, but they can’t really be blamed for how people react to them. There’s just something in their nature. They are who they are.
And maybe that sort of thing is innate in Guadagnino, too. As a lonely, cinema-obsessed boy growing up in Palermo, Italy, he successfully prevailed upon his mother to buy him a Super 8 camera, then sought to make his first short film — an homage to the horror director Dario Argento. The young Guadagnino submerged a piece of cow meat in a glass of water and planned to film its decomposition over time, but the smell of rot reached his intended audience before that gory vision ever could.
“My mother threw the meat away,” he said proudly, “so I never did finish my movie. But that was my first one!”
In 1999, Guadagnino made his feature-length debut with “The Protagonists,” which was received just as viscerally, earning a round of boos at the Venice Film Festival. His grand, unabashed vision would begin to win over critics with subsequent films like “I Am Love” (2009) and “A Bigger Splash” (2015). After “Call Me by Your Name” became an Oscar-vetted sensation, Guadagnino was even offered the chance to direct big studio movies, filling his docket with planned remakes of “Lord of the Flies” and “Scarface.”
Still, bigger movies require bigger budgets, and after Guadagnino had trouble securing enough money to make “Blood on the Tracks,” a star-studded film adapted from the Bob Dylan album by the same name, he instead pivoted to television. The producer Lorenzo Mieli had suggested a show exploring gender fluidity in American suburbia, but Guadagnino wanted to give “We Are Who We Are” his own spin.
“I wasn’t too much into ‘topics,’ and I wasn’t too much into the zeitgeist,” he said. “Instead, what I felt was interesting was a TV narrative not from the perspective of action and plot, but more from the perspective of behavior.”
The result is an eight-episode series that owes less to the heavily stylized “Euphoria,” HBO’s other big teen serial, and more to the matter-of-fact naturalism of Maurice Pialat’s 1983 coming-of-age drama “À Nos Amours.” Guadagnino had come into the project with detailed plans to distinguish each episode with different lenses and elaborate camera techniques, but he began to rethink his intentions when the show’s young actors arrived last summer on set outside Padua, Italy.
“What’s the point of working with actors, or performers in general, if you do not rely on them as creative forces?” said Guadagnino, who asked Grazer and the newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón for input on how their characters would think, speak and behave.
“They started to give me incredible social inspiration, and what I wanted is to feel and touch the breath of life coming from these people,” he said. “All my constructions that I spent many, many months on, I threw them away in one gesture: ‘No. We will follow the characters.’”
The cast learned to roll with it. “Basically, we didn’t even know what we were doing every day — it depended on the light,” Sevigny said. “He kept all the actors there and they had already built the set, so he could shoot whatever he wanted to shoot, whenever. How many directors get that kind of luxury?”
Though Guadagnino says he is not inspired by hot-button topics, plenty of contemporary issues still wind their way through the show. While Seamón’s character, Caitlin, explores the boundaries of her gender identity, her conservative father Richard (played by the rapper-actor Kid Cudi) dons a “Make America Great Again” hat.
“It was something that I really had to dig deep for,” Cudi admitted. “Because this character is totally different than who I am and the things that I stand for.”
Likely to set even more tongues wagging is young Fraser’s crush on a hunky Marine in his 20s (Tom Mercier) who does little to dissuade his interest. The characters in “We Are Who We Are” often wade into dangerous territory, but Guadagnino isn’t interested in moralizing. The point is to get you to talk about it, and to come to your own conclusions.
“We could judge a friend’s behavior, and help the friend,” Guadagnino offered. “But do we need to judge characters?” He shook his head. “If we start sanitizing our characters from the provocativeness of ethical questions, we’d just better stop doing what we do.”
GUADAGNINO FINISHED PICTURE edits on “We Are Who We Are” in February, just two weeks before Italy went into lockdown to deal with a coronavirus outbreak. Though he has remained busy in quarantine, creating a short film that will premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the past few months have been wrenching: Guadagnino’s father died in May, and then he was left by his partner of 11 years, the director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino.
Milan, where Guadagnino lives, has begun to reopen, but it is still a lonely place, and so is he within it. “I am a figure in this landscape of emptiness, honestly,” he said. “I dream every day of my father and I dream every day of my partner, and I bring those dreams into the emptiness of the city with me.”
“I don’t want to sound pathetic,” he added. “But that’s who I am, and I cannot be not candid.”
For Guadagnino and for the audience, the unspoiled summer of “We Are Who We Are” will play a little differently now. The show revels in pleasures that have been snatched away since the pandemic began, like dinner at a full-to-bursting restaurant or, in the show’s standout fourth episode, a party that winds on and on until the characters, drunk and depleted, feel vulnerable enough to bare their souls.
Had things gone according to plan, “We Are Who We Are” would have premiered as one eight-hour venture at the Cannes Film Festival in May, kicking off a monthslong press tour that eventually would have reunited Guadagnino with his cast in the United States. Instead, the director is stuck at home.
“I wouldn’t be able to party anyway,” he said. “I can only be awake all night if I’m shooting.” Though he misses his cast, “in real life, when I am not doing a movie, I think I would be so boring to them.” Even provocateurs have to rest.
Over Zoom, Guadagnino is bright-eyed and professorial; he will turn 50 next year, and said the teenage actors in the cast looked at him as they would an uncle or a grandfather. When I spoke to Grazer and Seamón, they were mostly fascinated by his willingness to eschew the modern convenience of an iPhone for a pink, hinged Nokia that can’t even send or receive photos.
“I was like, ‘How do you even operate in the world we’re living in?’” Seamón said.
Her director still eyes the iPhone skeptically. “This little thing does not serve you,” he said. “You serve it.” When I asked Guadagnino how different things might be if he were growing up today, he didn’t expect his modern teenage self to be any more plugged in to technology, or even to people: “I think I would be lonely, and I would read a lot of books.”
At first, I was surprised by his resignation, since Guadagnino had just told me, “You do not want to nail yourself to a sense of self that is unmovable.” But while “We Are Who We Are” is a loving tribute to people’s infinite potential to change, grow and surprise, its maker is simply more set in his ways. And he’s learned to be OK with that.
“Can a leopard change its spots?” Guadagnino said. “Your identity is your identity. Your nature is your nature. More than I even admit it is.”